(41) No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping – Ezra 3:13

The last three history books in the Bible deal with the period when the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon. Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther are named after their leading characters and are at the end of the History section of the Old Testament – see the Bible Bookcase.

In the same way as the people of Judah went into exile in three batches so we read about three distinct returning groups. Ezra came back with the second group and his book records the first and second returns. The first group returned during the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia. The Medes and Persians had combined to defeat the Babylonians and they decided to overturn the policy of the previous regime and allow people who had been dispossessed to return to their homelands. As part of this, Cyrus issued a proclamation that he had been charged with building a temple for God in Jerusalem.

Forty-two thousand people returned to the devastated city and began the arduous task of building a new temple. The foundations were laid by the second year of their return and the people held a celebration on the site, giving praise to the Lord for this early sign of their return from the land. The crowd who gathered included some old men who had seen Solomon’s temple before it was destroyed seventy years previously and these men “wept aloud” (Ezra 3:12). They had treasured that childhood memory all their long lives and few would have expected to see a new temple built in Jerusalem. The younger people had grown up in Babylonia and for them Jerusalem and the temple were part of the history they had learned from their parents. So, for them, seeing the temple starting to come alive in stone was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream, and a cause for great joy and they shouted their delight. The sound made was so unusual that Ezra tells us that “No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away” (Ezra 3:13).

This initial enthusiasm was soon lost as the people in the surrounding country set about discouraging their work. They were fearful of the Israelites returning and re-establishing their power in the region and hired counsellors – what we might call professional lobbyists – to frustrate their plans and this brought the work on the temple to a standstill for about sixteen years.

It wasn’t until Darius became king of Persia, eighteen years after the initial return, that the Jews were once again stirred into action, this time by two of the minor prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, who confronted the people for “living in your panelled houses, while this house (the temple) remains a ruin” (Haggai 1:4). Haggai saw a direct connection between their lack of giving to God and their own poverty. It is a principle that if we don’t put God first in our time and our finances then we cannot expect him to put provision of our needs at the top of his priority list either.

The words of the prophets reinvigorated the building work and the people started work in earnest. They were led by Jeshua the priest and Zerubbabel the governor, a grandson of King Jehoiachin whose name meant “born in Babylon”. (Although he was not a king, he was the last of the line of David to hold a position of authority in Jerusalem. In the gospels, both Matthew and Luke trace the ancestry of Jesus to Zerubbabel, with both Joseph and Mary being descended from different branches of his family.)

The enthusiastic rebuilding angered the opponents of the Jews who wrote to Darius asking him to stop the work. He searched the archives and found the decree that Cyrus had made ordering the building of the temple. So, much to the frustration of the Jews’ enemies, Darius, rather than stopping the work, sent finances and materials for the building and, in the characteristic style of the dictators of this time, ordered that anyone opposing this would be impaled.

Within five years the temple was completed and dedicated with great joy. The people were back in the promised land.

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